Tauba Auerbach’s Plate Distortion II came in to the BMA collection in 2012, and it captured my attention on my very first visit to the Museum, when it was on view in On Paper: Spin, Crinkle, Pluck. Its abstract folds reminded me of an art student’s favorite still life exercise: piles on piles of dramatically lit fabric.
Throughout her work, Auerbach nods to many technical and historical themes, and in Plate Distortion II she references a centuries-long tradition of western portraiture in which clothing and drapery are rendered in marvelous detail in order to fulfill the sitter’s desire to appear wealthy and fashionable and the artist’s desire to show off technical ability. John Singleton Copley’s Mrs. Joseph Hooper (1770-1771) is an apt example of this tradition.
Studying Mrs. Joseph Hooper closely, my eyes bounce from her fair skin, dark braid and the flow of her dress dropping back to the cloth draped behind her all carefully rendered in space using perspective. Copley was a prominent portrait painter working in the American colonies during the 18th century. While working in America, Copley’s career benefited from having access to prints, particularly reproductions of old masters and 18th century English portraits. These references provided Copley with the poses and motifs to help cater to the aspirations of his American patrons.
Much as Copley’s study of prints—including the depiction of drapery—helped him to formulate his distinctive style, Auerbach’s work with the printers of Paulson-Bott Press in Berkley, CA, prompted her to explore—and push the boundaries of—the technical possibilities of printmaking. Plate Distortion II doesn’t just represent the idea of “fold”, but the work is created by the physical impression of a folded object. Auerbach worked with Paulson-Bott Press to etch copper foil, which had been crumpled by the artist. When etched and flattened the foil holds a record of its folded shape. (For more on the process used to make this print, check out Ben Levy’s video on Plate Distortion II.)
Auerbach’s work sits in the space just between the peaks and valley’s of the etched copper and the flatness of the paper. Plate Distortion II takes all of this surface speculation into account, as Auerbach considers the shift of modern and contemporary artists to investigate the image surface over the 20th and 21st centuries.